“I have much more to say to you, more than you can bear right now.” (John 16:12)
Ever notice how you always save the most important things you want to say until the end? Like when you’re visiting family or friends after a long absence. You’re there for a few days; you hang out, go out to eat, maybe get on each others’ nerves a bit. But it’s only when you’re about to walk out the door to catch your plane that you finally say what’s really on your heart. They’re the words you’ve wanted to say, but somehow just couldn’t squeeze them in at any other time. And now that you’re about to leave, with no other time left, you try to cram in those most important thoughts.
During this Holy Week, I’ve been thinking on that famous Last Supper scene. Jesus had been eagerly waiting for this last great event with his closest friends. And just hours away from his torture and death, knowing that his mission on earth was coming to an end, he was nearly bursting at the seams with things he wanted to tell them, so much he wanted them to know. But he had so little time left, and he recaps months worth of teaching in a matter of hours. (Nearly the entire second half of John’s gospel is dedicated to these final things.)
And here’s what he wanted them to know. Here’s what he wants us — YOU — to know.
You are greatly loved. As a point of theological discussion, it’s almost absurd to mention this — it’s so simple. But what do people facing death usually want to say to those around them before they go? It’s all about the love. “I love you SO much.” More than anything else you can say, more than anything else you can do at that moment, you want your family and friends to know how much you love them, how important they are to you. They are your final thoughts. And Jesus was no different. “Having loved his own, he now showed them the full extent of his love …” (Jn 13:1). And he tells them over and over in those next few hours that he loves them, that the Father loves them, and how they can remain in his love. It’s that important to him.
Love each other. Just as much as he loved them, they were to love each other (Jn 13:34). That would be their signature characteristic; it would be the primary way people would recognize them as his followers and as children of God. Not just some mushy feeling in their guts, but as real acts of sacrifice for each other, showing how important they are to each other. Just like before dinner when Jesus knelt on the floor before each of them and washed their feet. Real, inconvenient, messy, dirty, time-consuming, and even humiliating actions for the benefit of the other. “You need this. This will be good for you. I want to do this for you. And I expect nothing in return.” He gave them that example to follow — an image that I’m sure stayed with them the rest of their lives: their beloved Lord and master, kneeling before each of them, with towel and bowl in his hands. Because each of us is important to him, and we should treat each other that way.
I’m not leaving you alone. Still a little confused by his behavior during the Supper, the disciples were probably more than a little disturbed by the things he was telling them. He was about to leave them. The words sent shivers of fear up their spines. What would they do now, without him? Had it all been a waste of time, a joke? Was it really going to end just like this? Knowing their fears, and wanting them to know what was about to happen, he reassures them. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust God; trust me. I’m not leaving you as orphans. I’m coming back for you so that we can be together always. But in the meantime, I’m sending you another Counselor to be with your forever, and he’ll teach you and guide you” (Jn 14:1-3, 16-18, 26-29). It’s not over. Jesus’ immanent arrest and execution would not be the end of the mission, and certainly not the end of their friendship. They were to carry on with the help of his divine companion, the Holy Spirit. And when they’d finished their part of the task, he’d come back for them. This point, too, he mentions several times during that evening. In the panic that was sure to ensue, he went to great lengths to make sure they wouldn’t forget this simple fact: they’d never be alone. And for most of us these days, those are some much needed words. In all the chaos and confusion of our own lives, it’s important to know that he has not left us alone. We have all the guidance we need, if we’ll just listen to the Counselor. And beyond that, he’ll even empower us to do what needs to be done. Our mission continues, and we haven’t been abandoned to do it alone.
Don’t be surprised by a little trouble. Anyone who’d hung around Jesus very long knew that trouble sometimes followed. He made all kinds of people mad — especially the religious types. And as his followers, they should expect the same. “Remember my words: No servant is greater than his master. If the world hates you, it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Jn 15:18-25). “I’m telling you this ahead of time so you won’t be surprised and stumble. They’ll kick you out of their synagogues and churches, thinking they’re serving God… In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:1-3,33). Believers shouldn’t expect of life full of ease and blessing, free from stress and problems, free from trouble-makers, gossips, busy-bodies, and people simply out to get them. Even in the church — or maybe, especially from people in the church. You’re gonna ruffle a few feathers, you’re going to annoy and irritate people, you’re gonna make them uncomfortable. And they won’t take it kindly. They’ll get nasty. They’ll kick you out, and even throw stones. They might even try to kill you. Don’t let this catch you off guard, don’t be surprised. And don’t let it shake your faith or cause you to go astray. Expect it. It happened to Jesus, and he wanted his followers to be prepared for it as well. No surprises.
The good news: I’m leaving you my Peace and Joy. He was going away, and they’d be scattered like sheep without a shepherd for a little while, they’d be confused and frightened. But, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you … Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (Jn 14:27). You won’t be in this messed up state very long. The Counselor will take up residence with you, he’ll be with you constantly through it all, and when you calm down a bit, you’ll be able to rest peacefully. And not only that, by keeping the command to love each other, you’ll stay in my love, my joy will fill you — your joy will be complete (Jn 15: 9-10). Even though Jesus wouldn’t be there physically with them any longer, because the Spirit would come in his place, that sense of security and joy they’d become accustomed to in his presence would continue. They could trust in that; they could relax — despite all the trouble. Nothing in their relationship would change. And when we’re going through some dark valleys ourselves, we can have that same confidence, that same peace, and that same joy. The pleasure of his continued company is guaranteed to us.
He was rushed. He was full of nervous energy, knowing what was just hours ahead. And he had so much he wanted to tell them, so much he wanted to reassure them. His last thoughts, those most important priorities, were focused on them. And after dinner, when he and his friends went out to the Garden — he, to wait for his arrest, and they, thinking it was an after-dinner walk to get some fresh air — Jesus’ final prayer was filled with them. “I pray for them… I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world. Holy Father, protect them so that they may be one as we are one. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn 17: 9-18).
The mission was being turned over to those first disciples — and to us who follow. And just as we go through some of the same hardships they went through, his final words are for us as well. They’re our lifeline in troubled times, those moments when we feel the world crashing in around us, when we feel crushed and alone. Of all the theology we could study, of all the Scripture we could read, and of all the liturgy we could recite and experience in these Holy Days, these are the words he wanted us to hear. These are his last, most important thoughts for us —
You are loved. Love each other. You’re never alone, and I’m coming back for you. Don’t be surprised by the trouble going on around you. And take heart, I’m leaving you my Comforter, my peace, and my joy.